YOU'RE going where?'' The question was directed to me with a mixture of horror and amazement. Doubt had entered my mind, and not for the first time. Trincomallee, on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka was not, it seemed, everyone's idea of a holiday destination. Rooted in the heart of Tamil-territory, the area had suffered in the last few years from the civil war, and Sri Lankans told me the whole area was impossible to get to because of the troubles. But there was a way. By rail. The ticket seller at Colombo railway station automatically presumed my destination was Kandy, and seemed stumped at the request for a single ticket to Trinco. ''Two?'' he enquired hopefully smiling at my male companion. ''No, only one''. An eyebrow was raised. I swallowed. ''First or second class?'' The difference was 50 rupees (HK$10). If I was going to be captured at gunpoint en-route, it might as well be in relative comfort. Hang the expense. ''First Class''. Even the night before, an elderly newspaper journalist I had been working with telephoned me to try to persuade me to change my plan to go to Hikkadoa instead. But the prospect of the popular south coastal resort of Hikkadoa with thousands of lobster-skinned European package tourists on packed beaches was a rather tame alternative. BEFORE the sun rose the taxi was on its way to the station for the 6am train. A well-dressed young businessman emerged from gloomy shadows and asked: ''Which train are you waiting for, madam?'' ''Trinco - is this the right platform?'' ''Yes, but why are you going to Trinco?'' ''A holiday.'' Pause. ''A holiday?'' he repeated slowly, ''Alone?'' Here we go again. After my travels in hot, dusty India, the lush surroundings, fruit-laden palms and brilliant green padi fields provided colourful relief. Unlike Indian trains, there was an absence of the endless stream of food, chai and betel sellers which normally provide entertainment on long weary journeys. And this one would last eight hours. In fact a deathly hush filled the carriage, broken only by an occasional visit by khaki-clad armed guards, ambling along the aisle and peering at each occupant under thick eyebrows. Several times, especially in the latter half of the trip, searches were made of luggage and proof of identity was demanded from each person - except me. Perhaps I looked less like a terrorist than the couple with a sleeping baby behind me, or the old guy dozing with his nose in his newspaper. I felt almost cheated at being ignored. But towards the end of this long, tiring trip, the guards stepped up their searches and even I did not get away without a cursory looking-over. The images of Trinco from the glossy holiday brochures were certainly far removed from the stories I was told, and it was hard to connect the two. The tourism industry had disappeared, and the small coastal town once famed for its wonderful diving facilities and picturesque location was now practically a ghost-town. But the environment I was entering was certainly not sending out the signals of ''tread carefully between sniper-fire,'' more like ''prepare to tune in, turn off and drop out'' . The tiny villages we had passed through gave the impression of a contented, tranquil life, relatively affluent farming land and housing. In the heat of the afternoon sun, Trinco bid me welcome. An obliging trishaw driver took me through the town centre and dropped me off on Dyke Street, the traffic-free coastal road. It seemed the only place to stay was ''Chinese Lodge'' on the beach and my enquiries from the old Chinese owner, with torn vest stretched over faded blue shorts, confirmed a reservation. The room was basic, but I had not expected room service and jacuzzi. Whatever the facilities lacked, the setting, view and atmosphere amply made up for. The cheerful owner approached me with a broad beam. ''The other tourist not here yet'', as if he expected me to latch on to the nearest foreigner. It emerged through our stunted conversation that the only other tourist to have stayed in his lodge in the past few months had gone for the day. The bulk of the people who live here are fishermen and their families who have to step only a few metres from the back-door to the waterfront. Where were the flying bullets, distant echoes of warfare and smouldering remnants of arson attacks? The local people visible from my vantage point did not appear to be unduly worried by any threat to their safety. The fishermen dragged the nets up the beach and cheerfully cried as they drew in their catch by the doorway of the lodge; a few children played on the sand and in the clear sea, and promenaders wandered up the seafront, lazily. Trinco was, for the time being at least, a safe spot, but it will take a long time before it can regain its reputation as a peaceful haven for tourists. That evening, the search through the tiny village streets for nourishment left me with an easy choice. Two doors down from my lodgings, a tiny bar and restaurant seemed the only option. The small beach-side tables were full of locals - all men - eating, drinking and playing cards in a noisy but good-natured humour. The owners insisted that because I was the only woman there I should be moved to the indoor family room. When I resisted, they cast parental eyes over me as the Sri Lankan Navy sitting near me were loudly appreciating the freedom, alcohol and environment, and attempted to drag me into the fray. From the first few hours of Trinco as a ''taster,'' my next three days continued at much the same pace. Comforting and predictable, it gave the opportunity for isolation, solitude and self-contentment. The locals were friendly enough, but it was the kind of place where socialising was not a priority. On lazy afternoons alone on the beach with a book and Walkman, I was given a respectful distance and welcome privacy. A few people walked past and only with a quick, curious glance was my presence acknowledged. The main two aspects of Trinco are its fishing trade and its reputation as the finest diving area in Sri Lanka. The latter I did not have first-hand evidence of, but the fishing industry through the markets, beaches, and smells, was always evident. Through the massive wholesale market, with blood underfoot from the hacking up of enormous freshly caught fish of every description, I came to the other side of the narrow peninsula. Small wooden huts lining the beach housed the fishermen and families. Walking along the beach I passed groups of old men laboriously sewing up nets in the shade of their boats, and always with a kind word or greeting. Kids played cricket in between the wooden boats, scampering on the sands between makeshift stumps. The sea covered an amazing spectrum of colours. And there were no other outsiders to appreciate it. Maybe this is why it remained so clean. Early the next morning I followed a small parade of people walking down the village road, wheeling bicycles, old women with bright sarongs balancing empty baskets on their heads, or mothers with babies strapped to their backs, going to market. The market-place back in the centre of town was small and subdued - a contrast to most Asian markets. With armed guards on each entrance to the square, and buildings that had been destroyed in the surrounding streets, here was some evidence of times more dangerous. Also, across the road was the local bus-station, and going inside to make enquiries meant each person was checked, frisked and searched by one of several police officers. They also must have felt that my foreign face was not posing much of a threat. I was not, it seemed, about to emerge completely unscathed from Trinco's wild adventures. After slipping on some rocks on the beach, the blood from the gash attracted the sympathy of a couple in the village. They dressed my wound and it gave me the opportunity to find out a little more about Trinco's troubles from a family who had lived through it. The mother - who was a dress-maker and worked from home - told me one of her sons was killed four years ago, and spoke of the fear that the whole area had been under. But like most people here, they were reluctant to discuss the war in detail. It is not easy to talk of personal tragedy. Boarding the local bus intending to stop off in Kandy on the way back to Colombo I was relatively unscathed - only a bandaged knee. I was pleased I hadn't bought that bullet-proof vest that a journalist pointed out in Colombo.